Eight Mountains a Story of Friendship and Fate


By Paulo Cognetti
Atria Books, 272 pages

When I was in Italy a few years ago I visited the mountain village where a friend was born many decades earlier. My wife and I drove higher and higher before reaching our destination. It would be overdramatic to say the village was a place time forgot, though that would be precisely the phrase for abandoned hamlets above and below it.

I mention this because one of the themes of Paulo Cognetti's Eight Mountains is that geologic time moves slowly and mighty mountains couldn't care less about the rhythms of its human inhabitants. The village I sought was in the Apennines and Cognetti's in the Southern Alps, where Italy melds with Switzerland, but it's easy to imagine a similar vibe. Eight Mountains follows a decades-long friendship between two individuals from quite different backgrounds: Milan-raised Pietro Gausti and Bruno Guglielmina, who seldom ventures far from the confines of greater Grana, a gateway village to the high peaks near the Matterhorn. Like some of the places I visited, Grana once held thousands, but now just hundreds.

Pietro and Bruno become soul mates despite their differences. Pietro comes from an educated bourgeois family who summer in the Alps; Bruno is a rough-and-tumble peasant lad whose mother is a near mute and his father a brute. Pietro's parents more politely parallel Bruno's: his mother is content with rustic pleasures and his father driven to traverse the length of mountain trails and glaciers, even if it means pushing Pietro like a driven mule and even though a summit is simply the signal to reverse and go home. For Pietro, though, the mountains, rivers, scree, and forests are Zen-like—places to contemplate, not conquer. This is a source of some amusement to Bruno, who tells him that "nature" is a name those of privilege give to the mountains, whereas people of his ilk label what is useful: wood, water, stone…. This is certainly the point of view of his people; Bruno's father punches Pietro's father when the latter offers to take Bruno back to Milan and pay for his education. Is this an act of tyranny, or a hard kindness?

In practical terms, it means the boys are seasonal friends who mature along different paths: Pietro becomes the educated professional who travels the world whilst Bruno lives out the only role he desired: that of a mountain man. Neither play their roles quite as they would have scripted them, but who comes closer and why is Pietro lured back to Grana whenever he can get there? As Bruno casually observes, "You are the one who comes and goes. I'm the one who stays put." The book's title derives from one of Pietro's visits to Tibet, where he speaks with a monk who draws an eight-spoked wheel and tells him that in Buddhist cosmology the great peak Semeru stands at the physical, spiritual, and metaphysical world, surrounded by eight mountains and eight seas. The monk asks Pietro, "Who has learned the most, the one who has been to all eight mountains, or the one who reaches the summit of Semeru?" Maybe that sounds weird, but think before you judge—it might well be one of most profound questions ever asked. To put it in more Western terms, is it better to be a rock or a rolling stone? To know thyself, or to live with the unknowingness of becoming? 

Eight Mountains is a book about friendship, fate, the things from childhood that can and cannot be overcome, parental secrets, and both ancient wisdom and nonsense masquerading as truth. At core it wrestles with the degree to which we change our basic essence and the limitations of such endeavors. In the end, it's also both an actual and a philosophical mystery. This is Cognetti's debut novel, and it's quite an achievement.

Rob Weir

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